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Avoiding Last-Mile Challenges for Remote Workers
How do you create a consistently functional remote work environment when faced with inconsistent Internet connections among home workers? These six best practices can help.
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By Saadat Malik
Quickly rolling out and extending solutions to allow employees to work remotely has been one of the biggest operational changes in recent history. But there’s one catch we often hear regarding productivity, and that is inconsistent Internet connections that downgrade the experience, particularly while conducting conference calls or sharing material from a home office. This is not an easy problem to solve, since for most companies employee Internet connectivity is beyond what they consider their “scope of influence.”
But it needn’t be that way. Here are a set of methodologies and best practices to help you significantly improve the overall functionality of your remote work environment in the face of inconsistent last-mile connections.
Best Practice 1: Everyone’s remote work needs are different
Understanding and classifying the needs of your employees is a key first step. Whose needs are you addressing? The average remote worker, BYOD remote worker, power remote worker, high-security remote worker, or executives? Conduct a well-rounded analysis of the remote work needs of your organization. This needs to be a multidimensional review:
Storage requirements (local, remote, and backup)
Voice communication requirements
Video communication requirements
Special access requirements (e.g. cellular, air-gapped systems, etc.)
Best Practice 2: Internet service is an essential utility for key employees
Based on the segmentation above, you can determine a set of key employees for whom a functional remote work solution based on their specific needs is non-negotiable at all times. For these employees, consider a few things:
Ensure they can get an appropriate bandwidth and usage contract with their Internet provider (see best practice 3). Having such SLAs in place for the appropriate groupings of employees can make a significant difference in your ability to control the overall experience for your employees, especially where Internet connectivity is choppy.
If they typically (or potentially) need to work from home, be prepared to provide them with a user experience measurement and troubleshooting device. This can significantly decrease the troubleshooting time for your support staff, and it could allow the users to do a bit of troubleshooting on their own, avoiding support calls altogether.
Best Practice 3: Helping employees choose the right hardware can go a long way
Consider providing recommendations for home networking hardware that employees can chose from. Carefully selecting products that support key features (such as WPA3 encryption, attack detection and prevention, and adaptive QoS for upstream traffic) can help improve or avoid issues caused by poor connectivity-related hardware choices .
Best Practice 4: Guidelines can be worth their weight in gold
A set of guidelines for how the employees should set up their home networks can help improve connectivity, avoid potential issues, and increase security. These guidelines can be made specific for a small set of recommended hardware. At minimum, this will help to ensure proper levels of security and Quality of Service settings.
For security, provide guidance on Internet side security configuration. For devices with built-in WiFi, recommend best practice such as tough passwords, use of WPA3 encryption, and segment or disable guest WiFi. For QoS, the best way is to pick home router devices that support adaptive QoS for outbound traffic. With this, the router can prioritize your business-critical voice and video traffic over the kid’s video streaming and adapt based on the fluctuating upstream bandwidth available.
By simply recommending a few products and their configuration, you can decrease your risk and increase the quality of experience you are delivering.
Best Practice 5: Build an extranet architecture
Appropriate considerations can help maximize the quality of connection, and reduce as many issues as possible that are within your control.
To avoid any local outages, ensure you have geographic diversity for your VPN concentrators. Be conscious of your remote workforce locations and provide close proximity (low latency), primary and backup, termination points. Try to keep them both within 30 minutes of your furthest users. Tertiary options can be a bit more relaxed.
Understand your application architecture and the split of public vs private platforms. Some of your applications might not be suited for a public cloud-based approach for several reasons including security, compliance, latency, and legacy design.
Provision VPN concentrators and pipes appropriately to handle the extranet connections. This applies to your secondary and tertiary sites as well. For the split of applications in public cloud, current and future considerations, split out as much or all that traffic at the host, leveraging local Internet connections vs bringing it back through your data centers.
Consider an architecture that leverages public cloud resources for voice and video conferencing, like Zoom or Teams. Many companies underestimate the resource strain voice and video conferencing can put on VPN concentrators. If you must keep everything ‘on-the-ground’ in your data center, then follow a provision-monitor-adjust-repeat approach to ensure you can support the business.
Best Practice 6: Leverage 5G options as they emerge
5G options are rapidly becoming a reality in many regions. In some cases they can be leveraged to completely bypass the home Internet connection. In other cases they can be used as a backup. If you have power remote workers or offices, you can now send them a gateway device with 5G for their primary or secondary internet connection – with zero touch provisioning. This can include built in WiFi as well, which you can lock down to only corporate devices and then encrypt the dataflow.
Two points of consideration:
Device compatibility – becoming less of a concern, because when it comes to dongles and hotspots, they are readily available in most parts of the world. However, you should still analyze your options and carrier plans.
The bigger concern: carrier capabilities in the areas where you need connectivity. While you may have 5G towers near your workforce, not all 5G is created equal. First, if you see ‘5G Evolution technology,’ know that is not 5G. Next, understand that 5G covers a broad frequency range and the higher frequencies, which give your local Internet provider a run for their money, cannot travel as far, nor penetrate as well. Therefore, while your workforce may have 5G connectivity, you should confirm the speed at the exact place where the dongle or hotspot will live.
Having applied these best practices and their productivity capabilities, it raises the question “now we’ve created this approach, how does it affect our thinking for the permanency of a remote workforce?” These are Human Resource issues as much as they are connectivity issues.
These last-mile best practices do not, in isolation, improve preparedness of global, or national, or even office-building-level disruption. Perhaps the best practice of all is to roll last-mile best practices into business continuity preparedness.
About Saadat Malik
As VP for IoT and Intelligent Edge Services for HPE, Saadat Malik leads an organization focused on developing solutions and services for customers that are looking to transform their businesses by leveraging Networking, Digital Workplace and IoT capabilities..